Volume 2


Printed by the Clio Press Iowa City, Iowa 1918
Copyright 1918 by Clarence Ray Aurner

Transcribed by Sharon Elijah, June 21, 2013

pgs 122-128

There were school laws in Michigan when the Iowa country was under its government. And during the two years that the laws of the Territory of Wisconsin were obeyed here the people could have had some guide to the regular way of conducting schools. But there was no such Iowa law until 1839 when the first territorial legislature was called upon to make one. By this act the county officers laid off the districts whenever the people asked them to do so. A case of that kind happened in Lee County and two townships were organized into districts. Each surveyed township became a single district six miles square. Small divisions with few settlers could not support a school. There were no school taxes then, and each parent paid for the number of pupils he sent.

Governor Robert Lucas wanted the Territory of Iowa to take a leading place in plans for schools, and very soon he asked the legislature to pass another law. A number of men had been looking for a good one and they seem to have favored the school law of Michigan. At all events the new act of 1840 was exactly like that of Michigan. So we borrowed this law from Michigan just as we borrowed a part of the constitution of that State; and just as we had borrowed the law for making civil townships from Ohio. Besides, at a later time (in 1897) we borrowed another school law from Ohio. Iowa, then, has been a good neighbor who believes in taking advantage of the good things which its neighbors have tried.

After 1840 the civil townships were divided into school districts just as the county had been divided before, but by officers called township school inspectors. They visited the schools and examined the teachers whenever there were any asking to teach. The district voters decided how much money they would raise for the school, but the law did not allow them to have more than ninety dollars for teachers for the whole year. They might collect some for a library case and not more than ten dollars for library books. And it is interesting to know that in some districts a library was among the first things they thought necessary.

Many men believed that more money was needed for the public schools, and that not much progress could be made until a larger income was at hand from the public school lands. Taxation was not thought of then as a way to get large sums for education in the common schools. The majority of the legislators were agreed that it would be better not to make any more school laws until the territory became a state. Before that time came the constitution which was adopted required the law-makers to provide for a public school system. And it was this part of the constitution which was taken from Michigan. It contained a paragraph about instruction in agriculture which may have suggested using it for the prairie State of Iowa. Then the portion which described what the University of Michigan was to be may also have had something to do with the choice of the Iowa men. From that time there has been frequent mention of the teaching of agriculture, although only recently has there been any real attempt to teach it in the common schools.

In 1847 and again in 1849 there were other school laws passed by the General Assembly of the State. In each instance a number of improvements were made in the management of the districts. But the most important part of the law of 1849 allowed the districts to have classes above the common branches. The voters could decide this matter as well as the question of what subjects should be studied and how many teachers should be employed to teach them. Besides, they might order more than one school house to be built in the district and if they wished it, the board of education should classify the pupils. Such higher schools were not intended for towns only, but in the first place for any township or rural district. Probably the legislature was acting according to the advice of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Mr. Thomas H. Benton, Jr., who had said that such higher classes would help to prepare teachers for the common schools. It had been found that well-prepared teachers were scarce.

In October, 1852, a country district decided to build a house large enough to be “comfortable and convenient” for all the district. By June, 1853, it was to be ready for the pupils. It was shown that the cost for teachers in that district had been twenty-four dollars in 1849; it was thirty-seven dollars in 1850; and in 1851, thirty dollars. The board had decided to keep twenty dollars of the school money for a summer term, and at the same time each pupil was asked to furnish a half cord of wood all ready cut for the stove in the winter months. By a law of 1853 parents of the pupils were required to pay the cost of the schools after all the money from the school lands or from taxes had been used. In Muscatine a regular fee of ten cents a week for each pupil was asked during the first year under this act. The next year it was raised to twelve and a half cents a week.

By 1854 graded schools were talked of and in some places pupils had been formed into graded classes. Sometimes the name of “union school” was given to such arrangements. Any building which accommodated more than one room and teacher might be called a union school. In such a plan there were higher classes, especially for those preparing to teach. At least two of these union schools in Iowa became well known; one at Tipton opened in 1856 by Mr. Christopher C. Nestlerode, and one at Osceola opened about the same time by Mr. O. H. L. Scott. Pupils came from many counties to these schools and then returned to teach the common schools near their own homes. The men who were at the head of the two schools mentioned had been teachers in Ohio and knew of the union schools in that state. Indeed, the first one named was successful in having the Ohio law for such schools adopted in Iowa in 1857.

About the time graded and high schools were first opened, Governor James W. Grimes advised the General Assembly that the school laws should be re-written. To do this work, he thought men well informed on the subject should be chosen. The General Assembly agreed, and the Governor named for that duty Mr. Horace Mann, who had been so successful in establishing the common schools of Massachusetts; Mr. Amos Dean, then president of the State University of Iowa but living at Albany, New York; and Judge F. E. Bissell of Dubuque, who was well acquainted with the Iowa laws. It happened that Mr. Bissell was unable to serve on this commission and the other two did the work. They revised the school laws of Iowa and put them all into one bill, which they expected the legislature to pass in 1857. It was a year afterward, however, before any action was taken. Before that time a new constitution had been adopted for Iowa, and some important changes in the government of schools had to be made.

Page created June 25, 2013 by Lynn McCleary

Return to Iowa Stories Volume 2 Contents

Return to Cedar Co. IAGenWeb Home Page